By Larry Fine
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - After surviving a minute of edge-of-your-seat terror, Canada got the happy ending they desperately craved -- a gold medal ice hockey game against the United States to cap off the Vancouver Olympics.
The undefeated Americans had earlier roared into the final with a 6-1 destruction of Finland in Friday's opening semi-final.
"We're in the final," relieved Canada coach Mike Babcock told reporters. "You may find this hard to believe but it doesn't matter to me who we're playing."
Canada looked in cruise control themselves with a 3-0 third-period lead that moved the red-jerseyed throng to fill Canada Hockey Place with chants of "We Want USA, We Want USA."
Slovakia had their own wish list in mind, scoring two goals and mounting a furious last-minute attack that Canada goalie Roberto Luongo bravely repelled for a 3-2 victory that ensured a North American tussle for gold on Sunday.
"You've got to give them credit. they didn't quit," Canada forward Jarome Iginla told reporters. "It was sure nice to see that buzzer go off."
The passionate Canadian fans of the national game agreed and once their breath returned, their "USA" chant resumed.
Tournament favorite Canada's only loss in the tournament was by 5-3 against the Americans, who were outshot 2-to-1 but prevailed thanks to the brilliant goaltending of Ryan Miller.
"They got a young team over there and their goaltender has been outstanding," Canada coach Mike Babcock said.
"I've said the best goalie always makes you nervous and I think that kid has been really good for them."
Babcock said he liked what he saw from his players during the first 51:35 of the game against Slovakia when they scored two goals on deflections and another on a rebound as they controlled the puck and played tough inside.
"I thought we had tons of chances on Miller last time we played them but we didn't have enough second chances and enough deflections. We didn't work hard enough," Babcock said.
"You have to be willing to get on the inside."
Babcock said he did not see the gold medal contest as a "Dream Game" but suggested it might be the way of the future.
"The Russian thing was very exciting just because that's who we grew up thinking about all the time," he said.
"The U.S.-Canada thing is a reality. I think you're going to see a lot of this in the future. They have a good young team, they're rolling. They just crushed the other team today. They must be the favorite going in," he said, drawing laughs in his news conference.
Slovak coach Jan Filc said his team got a bit unlucky in the end against Canada and would reserve judgment on rating his team's Vancouver experience until Saturday's bronze medal game against Finland.
"Success means a medal and we desire a medal," Filc said.
Finnish forward Teemu Selanne looked forward to the game, saying: "I hope I can smile tomorrow."
(Editing by Jon Bramley)